Getting your book into a decent shape can lead to several drafts. Sooner or later, you’ll have to call a draft final. But when to do so?
As I well know myself, writers might have a strong desire to make their books as best as they can. And for good reason: in the competitive world of countless book just a click away (more so with an e-reader), small things may matter a lot.
Yet, at some point, any improvement will come at a hefty cost. A beta draft means time spent on the revisions (easily 10s of hours) + the time it takes the beta readers to read the draft (weeks, at least) + the time for you to process the feedback (a few weeks). Three more beta drafts may mean a year…
And if all the work leads to only cosmetic improvement, maybe it’s time to accept that the final product won’t be 100% perfect, that 90% might be good enough – else you might remain in beta stage for years, if not forever.
The 80:20 rule?
The 80:20 rule takes many form. The one I remember the most applies to software development: 80% of requested fetaures take 20% of the effort. What, exactly, is the remaining 20% of features? And how it relates to writing?
To answer the first question: it would be completely new features that would have to be coded from scratch (while the base of a software may come from some similar past project).
To answer the second question, I’ll take my current WIP as an example. Writing the first draft took me ~300 hours. I’m currently at almost 850 hours of pure writing time – so when I add the time I was just thinking about it and considering ideas, or making sketches that never saw the light of the world, it can go to or over 1000 hours. As the total time spent working on it will grow during the final stages, it’s very likely the first draft will be around 20-25% of the total time, maybe a bit less.
As a result, 60-70% of the time will be spent on iterating the story, in raw writing time. That’s not counting the fact there’s a lot of ‘dead’ time when I was waiting for beta feedback, so the ‘real’ time is already almost at the 20:80 ratio (and will reach it soon).
Which gets me to…
How feedback changes
In the very early stages (alpha/early beta), most of the feedback will be focused on the story and characters. You need to first find and fix plot holes, inconsistencies, and other such major issues.
As drafts come and go, you should see fewer of those major problems. Their absence will mean the readers will start noticing minor (compared to plot holes) things: dialogue structure, repetitivness, minor inconsistencies, typos…
And while even those will be fewer with each draft… they’ll never be gone. Even traditionally-published books have typos. I’m not here to tell you to give the story ‘only 90%’ – not at all. But if you spend 50 hours working on a draft and the result is finding ~10 typos and adjusting two bits of dialogue… maybe it’s time to leave the beta stage behind.
It’s hard to give a hard-fact advice but if there’s no major issue and 80%+ of the feedback are small adjustments… maybe it’s time to fix what was found, do a grammar pass or two, and send the story into the world (provided that everything else you need is ready).
And, when a draft is done, try to have a honest look at your work and think: how much did the last draft improve the story? How much can you realistically improve it? Isn’t ‘just one more draft’ an excuse to delay the dreadful moment your story will be unleashed upon the unsuspecting world?
If you plan to finish your book, you’ll have to beat the stage fright, or die trying. I am nearing there, and I know the last step will be hard for me. And there will be more trials ahead – if you make this one step, to conclude the drafting stage once for all and actually publish your story.
Anyway, I’ll end this post here. I hope this might give someone a nudge we all might need here and there. I know I’ll need it as well, soon. Feel free to share your tips to leave the endless drafting cycle – and how you decide(d) it’s the time.